Catholic Democrats launched a national campaign in May, garnering thousands of signatures from more than 40 countries in support of President Obama's meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on July 11, 2009. The meeting came on the heels of the G8 Economic Summit, in an earthquake-ravaged region of Italy, serving to emphasize that the needs of people were foremost in the minds of the world leaders who were all grappling with the economic crisis back home.
As president of Catholic Democrats, I had an opportunity to travel to the Vatican for President Obama's visit, and joined other bloggers and reporters in the Vatican press center for the release of the papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, on July 8. One Jesuit analysis of the document called it "a magnificent gift to the world from Catholic Social Teaching." This document, long in preparation, dealt head-on with the issue of a world economy that often leaves most of the people behind. It emphasized a seamlessness of life issues and economic concerns, and dwelt on the inter-relatedness of economies that spend large amounts on military spending and the lack of attention to human needs.
In my conversations with Vatican officials and reporters, it became clear that there was a real enthusiasm for the message of President Obama--that traditional enemies need to be talking, that the era of unrestrained spending on nuclear weapons should come to an end, that global warming poses an immense threat to developing countries, and that the world recession was having a disproportionate impact on poor people. It was my impression that even the related issues of unintended pregnancy and abortion stood to benefit from the work of an administration that supported economic opportunity around the world and expanded healthcare availability for pregnant women.
Friday the Vatican was closed to tourists for the Obama Family's visit, but crowds gathered outside Vatican City to see the Presidential Motorcade make its way inside. There was a tangible sense of promise for the future of the world as the two leaders talked inside. The Harvard-trained lawyer-turned-President was good-humored, and the Pope was gracious. One story that hummed in the air was the subject of a letter written by Senator Ted Kennedy, hand delivered by Obama to Pope Benedict. Given the contentious political atmosphere in the U.S., with conservative strategists increasingly trying to pit one end of the Catholic family against the other, I wondered if Senator Kennedy hadn't appealed to the Pope to stop the bickering.
Unless you're President Obama, coming to the Vatican is very much about standing in line. The day after Obama's visit with Pope Benedict, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and his family found themselves pushing through a crowd of thousands (with the help of a dark suited team of scowling security men) as they worked their way from the Pieta sculpture of Michelangelo (1499) to the spiral bronze altar piece of Bernini (1633). But having had the Basilica to themselves, the Obama Family missed witnessing the joyful astonishment of a thousand fellow gawkers.
Indeed waiting in line at the Vatican is an essential part of the social experience. Filing through the Piazza San Pietro for a sun-drenched hour to gain admission through the pearly gated metal detectors (2001) is an opportunity to see patience in action (the Dutch more than the Spanish) and the varied tastes with regard to what one wears when one explores the world's most cavernous church (Americans more likely to wear shorts).
Above St Peter's Square resides a ring of statues, all peering down at the crowd beneath. It proved difficult to find anyone who knew the identities of the immortalized individuals perched there. Each one stood atop a portico supported by smooth massive Doric columns (1667) lined up four abreast in the design of Bernini. My nine-year-old son wondered aloud whether each statue might represent one of the popes--and because one end of the structure was in scaffolding, whether the workers might be busy sculpting a new one of Pope Benedict (!).
But eavesdropping on an overly-dramatic British tour guide, one learned that the statues represent 140 larger-than-lifesized saints crowning the cornice -- their true identities perhaps known only to heaven. Lined up so symmetrically, in a huge arc around St. Peter's Square, it became clear that in Rome even the saints have to stand in line.